In a recent post, I mentioned how books can become special friends. Across the years, I’ve been entertained, inspired, comforted, and made wiser by many of them. One special friend has been Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a book I came upon early as an eager, wide-eyed student in an American literature survey course way back when. Unfortunately, Walden was dispensed in highlights, or teaspoon portions, which is like omitting the spices needed for a well-flavored soup.
Years later, I found my “friend” again, and this time read it all the way through in connection with filling in for a colleague on sabbatical. I had my students read it in full as well, for Walden transcends the classroom in its call to take time out, reassess our values, and set our priorities straight. It gets at the great Tolstoy question, “How ought we to live?”
One of the splendors of Walden is not just its message, but the succinct, aphoristic way it’s written, demonstrating Thoreau’s cultivation in his classic studies at Harvard. I’ll share some of the passages that have made Walden so memorable for me and may encourage you to your own luxuriant read.
On temporal space:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
On individual responsibility:
“What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates his fate.”
On living life simply:
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. . .I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I did then, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”
On having goals:
“In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”
On societal reform:
“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.”
“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us.”
“Time is the stream I go a-fishing in.”
“Why should I feel lonely. Is not our planet in the Milky Way?”